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Carla Blanco  

Miguel Ramos


Miles Hewstone

How Harmful is Ableism?
A Social Psychological Perspective on Disability

Carla Blanco, MA; Miguel Ramos, Ph.D.; Miles Hewstone, Ph.D.

Understanding disability as an individual and medical factor has obscured the impact of the social context in maintaining disability and the living conditions of disabled people. Instead of focusing on impairment as the core issue, a more social perspective posits that disability stems from environmental and attitudinal barriers. Drawing on this perspective, our research seeks to understand the impact of social (e.g., inequality, social policy) and socio-psychological (intergroup contact and social identity) determinants of the health and well-being of disabled people.

In our study (Branco, Ramos, & Hewstone, 2019), we explored whether being discriminated on the basis of disability (i.e., ableism) had more deleterious effects on health and well-being than did other forms of discrimination. Conducting secondary analyses on a large dataset comprising 32 countries in Europe and 12 years of data, we compared the well-being of individuals who reported belonging to a group discriminated against by society on the basis of “color or race”, “nationality”, “religion”, “language”, “ethnic group”, “age”, “gender”, “sexuality”, and “disability”, controlling for a wide range of demographic and contextual variables. In addition, to control for between-group differences, we compared these effects on disabled individuals also belonging to another minority social category (e.g., disabled women over 65 years old, disabled people belonging to an ethnic minority). Both analyses confirmed that ableism had stronger negative effects on health and well-being than did other types of discrimination. There are multiple explanations for this. First, disability is associated with powerful stigmatized characteristics such as death, illness, and dependence. Second, also due to this stigma, disabled people are more likely to suffer from social isolation and a wide range of access barriers. Moreover, they comprise an extremely heterogeneous group (i.e., it includes a broad spectrum of physical and cognitive conditions) hindering the development of a strong and cohesive social identity, which has been shown to improve the well-being of other minorities. Finally—unlike with other minorities, where discrimination is now more established as illegitimate—in the case of ableism there is still a narrative of legitimacy (e.g., not being hired for a job because of an alleged inability to deal with the involved tasks) that undermines responses to discrimination.

This study emphasizes the significance of studying disability, a topic that has been relatively neglected in psychology and other social sciences. This is perhaps not surprising given that what researchers do is heavily influenced by society and its priorities. However, at a time when psychologists are called to work toward promoting equity and justice, it becomes of paramount importance to consider all groups, especially those who have been severely affected and remain somewhat invisible in society and academia. One starting point would be to promote studies on this topic through specifically allocated research funding; another would be to create awareness by including disability in conferences and journals together with race, gender, class, etc. Additionally, it is critical to meet the conditions to include disabled researchers at all academic events. Overall, researchers should work closely with policymakers and disability rights movements, creating synergies that will help to empower those who face ableism while promoting meaningful social change.

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